China has fully vaccinated more than 1 billion people against Covid-19

A total of 2.16 billion doses have been given in China. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China has fully vaccinated more than a billion people against Covid-19 - more than 70 per cent of its total population - powering ahead of the United States and Europe despite having no immediate plans to ease some of the strictest pandemic measures in the world.

A total of 2.16 billion doses have been given in China as at Wednesday (Sept 15), Mr Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission, told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, fully inoculating more than 1.01 billion people.

The milestone comes nearly 10 months after China give its first conditional approval to the inactivated vaccine from state-owned Sinopharm and kicked off the biggest immunisation campaign in history. Another six inoculations developed by domestic drugmakers and academic institutes have since been cleared and rolled out to those aged 12 and older.

The success of China's vaccination strategy has not averted flare-ups of the pathogen in recent months, and questions remain about how effective the shots are, especially against the newest variants.

The nation is currently battling a cluster in the south-eastern province of Fujian after squelching an earlier Delta outbreak, the broadest it has experienced since Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan.

World leader

The pace of the programme puts China in the lead among the world's biggest economies. Just over half of the population in the US and Japan is fully vaccinated, while the rates in Britain and Germany exceed 60 per cent. India lags, with less than 15 per cent of its population fully protected, according to Bloomberg's Vaccine Tracker.

China has been even more successful in the mega cities lining its developed eastern region. More than 97 per cent of adults in the capital of Beijing are fully vaccinated, as are 80 per cent of the residents over the age of 12 in nearby Tianjin. The rate is approaching 80 per cent in the financial hub of Shanghai and in the neighbouring Zhejiang province.

In contrast, the hinterland provinces and those in the remote west have lower vaccine coverage levels.

China accounts for more than a third of the 5.18 billion shots that have been administered globally. Beijing has also exported 800 million doses to the rest of the world. It has signed off on giving booster shots to those at the greatest risk of contracting the virus or developing severe Covid-19, including people over 60 years old.

While the arrival of the more infectious Delta variant means herd immunity is unlikely to be reached, countries around the region are increasingly pegging reopening and the lifting of restrictions to vaccination, in hopes that it will make Covid-19 infections no more than minor ailments for most people.

China has signalled it won't go down this path. The country's health minister vowed in August to stick to its playbook of early detection, mass testing and aggressive controls to snuff out any sign of the virus, saying the approach guarantees economic growth.

Epidemiologists from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises Beijing on its Covid-19 response, have repeatedly said vaccinations must be coupled with existing curbs to prevent outbreaks.

Yet that combination appears unable to stop the Delta variant. It has breached China's stringent controls more easily than earlier strains of the virus, and its transmission can occur covertly for days before it is detected by China's heightened surveillance.

Thus far, however, vaccination has spared most people from severe illness. The escalation of curbs rather than reliance on vaccines to blunt the spread of the virus, including transportation restrictions and lockdowns, has weighed on the world's second-largest economy.

The moves dampened consumer spreading, with retail sales slumping to 2.5 per cent in August, and hindered travel during what is normally one of the busiest periods of the year. Industrial output and investment also slowed versus economists' estimates.

Chinese officials have said the country will eventually reopen and rely on the protection afforded by its vaccines once it is safe to do so. However, there is no indication yet of when that will be.

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